“Most kids have a phase where they are fascinated by dinosaurs,” says Carrano’s younger brother, Frank. “Matt never came out of that phase.”
Flash-forward 42 years and Carrano is the curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian Institution, channeling the youthful curiosity of his 7-year-old self to remake the fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History, one of its most popular exhibitions.
“The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils — Deep Time” reopens June 8 after a five-year, $125 million renovation, the largest in the museum’s 109-year history. “Deep Time” examines more than 3.7 billion years of life on Earth, using nearly 700 fossil specimens and other artifacts to tell a complex story. The completely revamped gallery features updated technology, as well as interactive displays that invite visitors to participate rather than merely observe.
Highlighting the exhibition are the museum’s dinosaur fossils, including the Nation’s T. rex, an important addition to the hall and the first fossil of the massive predator to be displayed in Washington. The T. rex is posed over a triceratops, taking a bite out of its skull. Other dinosaurs are positioned asleep and protecting offspring.
Carrano, 49, and his colleagues wrestled with accurately representing an ancient ecosystem in an entertaining manner, balancing drama with scientific fact in a story that’s engaging and relevant.
“It’s a battle of sorts between making it exciting and dramatic and making it true to what we know,” Carrano said during a recent interview in his office, a warren of bookcases and fossil cabinets that gives off an Indiana Jones meets Modern Dad vibe.
Sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee and glasses, Carrano resembles your favorite professor who always had time to talk after class. He's a research scientist immersed in his field, but he's also into cycling, cooking, television and movies. He can toggle between reading the Journal of Paleontology and watching HBO's "Deadwood" (to be ready for the new movie). And he'll patiently explain why Chicago deep-dish pizza shouldn't be classified as pizza (it's a casserole, he argues), although he'll chow down on it whenever he's in Chicago.
Carrano, says lifelong friend Brent Ryan, “is a multidisciplined intellectual, but he’s not removed from society. For someone who’s in academia, he’s refreshingly unpretentious.”
And Carrano’s superpower seems to be his ability to communicate complex ideas in an understandable way.
“He’s really good at explaining, going from academic paleontology to what people really want to know. It’s hard to do,” says George Washington University paleontology professor James Clark, a research collaborator who has known Carrano for almost 20 years. “And he’s really creative.”
The renovation of the fossil hall has tested Carrano’s research and storytelling skills. As the curator in charge of the dinosaurs — the unparalleled stars of the exhibition — he worked with paleobiologists Kay Behrensmeyer and Scott Wing, project manager Siobhan Starrs and a host of others to present a story that begins with the recent past and unspools backward, through billions of years, to the origin of life on Earth.
Their goal was at once simple and monumental: to share what they know about the geological events of ancient Earth — including extinctions and warming cycles — in ways that connect them to today’s changing climate.
“The world we live in has been handed to us from the past,” Carrano says, “so thinking about that process, past to present, is useful in thinking about present to future.”
A fortuitous wrong number
Carrano and his brother were raised in New Haven, Conn., by public schoolteachers. Formal education was important — he remembers his Italian grandfather reviewing every report card and giving him cash for good grades — but he and his brother were encouraged to learn on their own.
Not much interested in sports, Carrano spent a lot of time reading. He had a train phase, a shark phase and an astronomy phase, but dinosaurs held his attention in a deeper way. Ryan, who met Carrano in the third grade, says they were always begging their mothers to take them to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, which Ryan describes as a second home.
Carrano’s childhood in the 1970s was typical in many ways — he grew up on Star Wars and enjoyed a TV diet of “Happy Days” and “M.A.S.H.” But he was also fascinated by organizing and cataloguing information. In high school, he applied for a summer job with a temp agency that required passing a typing and filing test. Unhappy with the company’s imprecise filing system, Carrano tried to fix it. (The company didn’t take his advice.)
His first paleontogolical research happened by accident. For an advanced biology project in senior year of high school, Carrano tried to reach a bug expert at the Peabody. The number was wrong, and paleobotany grad student Kirk Johnson answered instead. Johnson, who three decades later would become Carrano’s boss at the Museum of Natural History, agreed to help, and then invited him to do field work in North Dakota. Carrano had just turned 17, and the idea of flying solo halfway across the country was unsettling for the self-described homebody. But he went anyway.
“Digging plant fossils is like prison work. It’s making big rocks into small rocks all day. It’s not finesse work,” he said. “I certainly found it interesting. To be out in the field was great and eye-opening.”
The next fall Carrano enrolled at Brown University, where he found a mentor in paleontologist Christine Janis, who recognized his abilities immediately.
“You don’t get students like Matt every day,” Janis said by phone from Bristol, England, where she now teaches. “Some people have an aptitude for certain subjects, an aptitude for understanding a complex idea. More than knowledge, the ability to think and to link ideas together. Matt’s been very good at that.”
Carrano admits that his parents were unsure of his plan to make dinosaur research a career.
“I was a weird enough kid that I don’t think my parents were unprepared,” he said. “I think my dad was like, ‘You sure you don’t want to be a lawyer or a doctor?’ You know, the classic career paths.”
Carrano was sure. After Brown, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, earning a PhD in seven years. As he was completing his degree, he applied for a job at Chicago’s Field Museum. It was there that he met his first T. rex. Her name was Sue.
A deep dive into 'Deep Time'
The Field Museum had spent $8.5 million to acquire Sue, one of the largest and best-preserved T. rex specimens. (The fossil is named for the Sue Hendrickson, who discovered the fossil in 1990.) Carrano, who wrote his dissertation on the biomechanics of dinosaur locomotion, was hired as a consultant to help prepare the skeleton for display. His work was specific, but, he says, “I was in the room when all the discussions were happening. It was a window into exhibits . . . and all the things that go with it.”
When Carrano was working on his graduate degrees, the first of the popular “Jurassic Park” movies was released, capturing the public imagination about the ancient creatures and sparking a resurgence in museum research. It was great timing for Carrano, who took a teaching position at Stony Brook University in New York in 1998, where he continued his research and began applying for curator positions.
The Smithsonian offered him a job in 2001, and he attended his first “Deep Time” meeting the day he signed his contract.
The “Deep Time” project has overtaken every aspect of Carrano’s life. He met his wife, Diana Marsh, on the project, while she was conducting graduate research on the exhibit. Marsh, who now works at the National Anthropological Archives (part of the NMNH), and Carrano were married in 2017. Their son, Max, was born last summer.
“The level of discourse in that house is insane,” says Carrano’s brother, Frank. “They have the same kind of level of intellectual curiosity, and intensity of interests. They are well matched in that way.”
At the Smithsonian, Carrano has contributed to just about every aspect of the dinosaur presentations in the fossil hall — from the position of the skeletons to the wall text explaining hundreds of specimens. There are new fossils on view and many others that are being presented in new ways. All of them reflect the latest research and trends in museum exhibits.
Carrano hopes that the exhibition of these ancient animals and ecosystems will help illuminate the issues we face today, such as climate change.
He’ll find out on June 8, when the longest and most complicated project of his professional life finally opens.
“After all this time, there’s a part of you that, you just want see the kinds of reactions people have,” he says. “Did we succeed? I’ll be very interested to know.”